Workers of the World, Read! (Then Unite)

Poster for German Social Democrats: "Young Workers, Knowledge Is Power"

German Social Democrat poster: “Young Workers, Knowledge Is Power”


Leon Wieseltier of the Brookings Institute made a strong case for arts education yesterday in a Washington Post column. The arts, he believes, help foster the moral imagination needed to address economic injustice in our society. Without them we risk getting trapped in the narcissism of personal grievance, which in turn can lead to votes for Donald Trump.

As much as I agree with Wieseltier about the importance of the arts, his column inadvertently reveals their limitations as well. The arts can’t do all the heavy lifting by themselves. To effectively address injustice, they must work in concert with smart political action.

Wieseltier focuses on those members of the white working class who have been supporting Trump and who, as he sees it, are personified by the characters in the 1978 Michael Cimino film The Deer Hunter. Our failure to care more about these people, he says, is a failure of imagination:

The partiality of our consciences, our inability to care about all who have a proper claim upon our care, is not the result of a constraint upon our budgets, or more generally upon our institutions of politics and government. It is the result of a constraint upon our imaginations. Ethical principles are most commonly ascribed to the operations of reason, but we need to remind ourselves of the role of the imagination in moral action. Without the imagination, we would act only against wrongs that we ourselves have endured. We would be prisoners of our experience — which is to say, the experience of people less lucky than ourselves would be incomprehensible to us.

Wieseltier goes on to echo Sir Philip Sidney that the arts can inculcate virtue:

Art, high and low, may play an indispensable role in the formation of virtue. One of the ways in which it does so is by picturing pain. Its pictures of pain may confer pleasure, but they also confer enlightenment about human fates unfamiliar to us; and it is not the case that the aesthetic satisfaction that we feel at the quality of a representation of evil destroys its moral meanings. Novels and poems and paintings and films and songs may bring the news of distant or hidden sufferings and abuses. By creating sympathy, art lays the ground, the internal condition, for moral behavior.

The Deer Hunter, Wieseltier says, proved far more effective than CNN in illuminating for him “the sources of the volatility and the fury that are mutilating contemporary politics.”

Wieseltier adds,

The imagination of other people’s pain extends the self beyond its own sensations, as [Adam] Smith said, and also beyond the confines of its assumptions and its surroundings; and this inner expansion, this mental and spiritual preparation, is what transforms justice from a fantasy into a cause. All this is very uplifting. 

Having described how the arts expand our moral imaginations, Wieseltier describes how our personal grievances shrink them:

The white working class differs in a significant way from the people who have discovered it. Our moment does not consist only in millions of Americans stepping outside themselves and proclaiming their sympathy for others. It consists also of millions of Americans staying inside themselves and proclaiming their sympathy for themselves. And just as the emphasis on other people’s tribulations expands us, the emphasis on our own tribulations contracts us.

We are all hobbled by the narrowness of inherited circumstances. In our bodies, in our communities, in our social classes, we are all provincials, all in need of correction and amplification by the encounter with other views and practices of life. In situations of adversity, moreover, our partiality becomes even greater. In hardship we discover, though we may not recognize it, the parochialism of pain. Pain is all that pain knows, its knowledge is supremely local, and it is for this reason an inadequate position from which to grasp the world.

Wieseltier then notes another view of the matter: those who are in such pain may have particular insights denied to the rest of us:

There are those who now think otherwise and regard the subjectivity of pain — the experience of social discrimination and marginalization, usually by race and gender — as a kind of ultimate authority in the analysis of society. They have invented a field called “standpoint theory,” according to which the social location of oppressed individuals enables them to see more and to know more, rather in the way that Marx believed in the epistemological superiority of the proletariat.

Wieseltier is not entirely unsympathetic with such thinking but argues that it underestimates how such people can become trapped by their pain:

There is some merit to the old idea that there are things that can be seen from the periphery that cannot be seen from the center, and privilege is certainly no guarantee of wisdom, but it is important also to remember that suffering does not confer infallibility, or even objectivity. Even victims, or especially victims, can become prisoners of their experience. They, too, can make mistakes — sometimes disastrous ones. Pain has no special access to truth. Reality cannot be correctly understood from the standpoint of a personal injury, individually or collectively.

Wieseltier here would benefit from the thinking of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist who ended up dying in one of Mussolini’s prisons. Gramsci argues for the “organic intellectual,” someone who combines working class origins (and therefore has a valuable “standpoint”) with an education that allows him or her to understand that perspective. One author who could be regarded as an organic intellectual, however, is someone whom Wiesltier goes on to criticize: Ta Nehisi Coates. While the African American winner of a McArthur Genius Award is very good at conveying his own oppression, Wieseltier says that Coates ends up stereotyping all whites in a Malcolm X sort of way. In other words, he sense of grievance overwhelms his moral imagination.

I haven’t yet read Coates’s book—it is on my bedside table—but Coates’s background may lead us to question Wieseltier’s assertion that the arts open the mind. Coates, after all, is very well-read. For instance, amongst his top ten books are three novels and two works of poetry, some of which he describes as having stretched his moral imagination. They are:

–F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
–Edith Wharton, Age of Innocence
–E. L. Doctorow, Waterworks
–“Neon Vernacular,” Yusef Kumunyakaa
–Carolyn Forché, The Country between Us

 About Age of Innocence, which I lauded last week, Coates writes,

I like this book for its willingness to embrace the tragic. No happy endings. The book is a defense of elitism, something I guess I oppose. But I found it credible, here.

Gatsby too, one could note, gives us a pretty good insight into the longings of people very different from Coates. Gatsby is the son of “shiftless and unsuccessful farm people” from North Dakota.

So by the terms that Wieseltier has set up, the arts and literature have given Coates the tools he needs to move beyond blind grievance. If Coates hasn’t done so, are the arts ultimately ineffective in this matter?

Wieseltier doesn’t pursue the matter but instead returns to the conundrum at the heart of his piece: while those white middle class leftists whose moral imaginations prompt them to sympathize with the working class have been voting for Bernie Sanders, members of the white working class themselves have been voting for Trump. This may prompt us to conclude that the expanded consciousness brought us by the arts is a chump’s game, at least in the realm of politics.

Wieseltier can’t solve the problem and ends his column with a despairing contradiction. After saying that we should sympathize with the plight of the white working class, he then says these people may end up hurting us all:

Liberals and socialists have been wondering for a hundred years why people in economic distress do not vote according to their economic interests. The answer should have been obvious long ago: People in adversity turn not to economics but to culture. They are fortified not by policy but by identity. They seek saviors, not programs. And as the direness of their circumstances appears to imperil their identity, they affirm it by asserting it ferociously against others. Hurt people hurt people. Against these hurt people, therefore, and against the profiteer of pain who shabbily champions them, it must be insisted that no amount of sympathy for their plight justifies the introduction of a version of fascism into American life. No grievance, however true, warrants the fouling of American politics by the bigotry and the brutishness peddled by Donald Trump.

Wieseltier needs Gramsci, who was very aware that workers can act this way. Gramsci’s solution was a robust educational program, which included the arts and philosophy as well as economics and labor history. Unlike Wieseltier, however, he also believed that the best educators come from the working class. His “organic intellectuals” combine both the standpoint perspective and the advantages of a classical education.

To bolster Gramsci’s point, I read somewhere that union members are far less likely to fall for Trump than unaffiliated workers. A friend who teaches at the school of the Machinists Union (the Winpisinger Education Technology Center in Hollywood, Maryland) told me that, while they don’t offer literature courses, they do make use of film (for instance, John Sayles’s Matewan). The workers emerge with a wider framework for understanding labor relations.

Unlike Wieseltier, Gramsci has a concrete plan for moving the workers beyond Trumpist myopia. One has to do more than throw books at them.

This entry was posted in Fitzgerald (F. Scott), Sidney (Sir Philip), Wharton (Edith) and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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